Two things to point out before diving into the review: one, I’m a big fan of the JTS games I’ve played and two, I’m interested in the Peninsular campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars. But despite that, beside dipping my toes into Scourge of War: Waterloo for about 15 minutes, I haven’t played a proper digital wargame set during the Napoleonic Wars. (Total War doesn’t count)
So while I’m no newbie in terms of John Tiller Software games, I’m a fresh-faced greenhorn when it comes to anything set before the Second World War from this venerable house of wargaming goodness. While some of the UI may be familiar, there is a lot I needed to learn to get the most out of Wellington’s Peninsular Wars, and while there was some head scratching and manual skimming, I’m glad I put the required time into learning the game.
The Spanish Ulcer and The Iberian Peninsula at War
My family comes from the Aveiro District of Portugal, and so the Peninsular Campaigns have always held a fascination for me, especially when I was younger and trying to decide on an area of study for graduate school. While I didn’t settle on Portuguese history, I did do a fair bit of reading into these campaigns and the terrors inflicted upon the people of Portugal and Spain by the Napoleonic Wars.
Beginning with Spain and Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal in 1807 and escalating with the Dos de Mayo Uprising against French occupation in Madrid in 1808, the Peninsular War saw many terrible battles and atrocities across the breadth of the Iberian Peninsula. At first allied with Napoleon, King Ferdinand VII of Spain was eventually removed in favor of Napoleon’s brother Joseph. This proved unpopular with the people of Spain for obvious reasons, kicking off one of the first major guerilla movements and beginning a war of terror and depredation that would prove to be the worst in Spanish history.
I also grew up reading Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, which gave me a healthy appetite for learning about the battles on the peninsula. You would think then that I would be all over games that represent the conflict, but time is what it is and the stars never aligned. That is until I generously recevied this review copy from John Tiller Software.
Wait, How Many Campaigns?
Wellington’s Peninuslar Campaigns, like many JTS titles, is absolutely huge. There are more than 180 scenarios including variants, with 60 or so dedicated to Human vs. AI play. As someone who has yet to put any time into multiplayer (though that may change soon!) I’m happy there are so many battles set up for solid play against the AI. There’s quite a variety of battles to cover here too, even going beyond the work of Old Nosey himself.
Scenarios range from the French quest to take Madrid and Britain’s Sir John Moore’s struggles to aid the Spanish, to Suchet in Eastern Spain, to Wellington’s two campaigns in 1812 and 1813 and beyond. There are also some stand alone scenarios hiding amongst the piles that come with Wellington’s Peninsular Campaigns, like the Battle of Maida in 1806. The point is, there is a lot of content here. When I think about how many scenarios I can get out of a JTS game versus pretty much everything else, there’s really no comparison.
Part of my appreciation of what JTS does overall comes down to this overwhelming amount of content. I’ve read about Salamanca several times. But nothing makes the battle as clear for me as seeing the correct units positioned on a correct map. Maybe I’m just more of a visual guy, but seeing, and playing, these scenarios help to expand upon my understanding in a way that always brings me back to the value of wargaming for education. But that’s a topic for another day. The point is, there is a lot of content here, and if you like how the game sounds, I doubt you’ll be running out of stuff to do with it for quite some time.
Deploy the Skirmishers! How Does Wellington’s Peninsular Campaigns Play?
JTS games set in any period have some key similarities in features and gameplay. First, the UI is fairly consistent and easy to understand. A row of buttons along to the top of the window provide just about every maneuver or bit of information that a commander could want, ready at their finger tips. Many of these buttons also have corresponding hotkeys, the memorization of such will make games move a lot faster. Second, there is an information panel along one edge of the screen that gives critical information about units occupying a highlighted hex. Clicking on units in this panel allows for individual orders to be given. It may look obtuse at first glance, but if you get past the dated visuals it’s an easy to work system and soon you’ll be checking LOS, deploying skirmishers, firing artillery, and positioning units within a hex in no time.
This is a phased IGO UGO game (by default, though it can be changed). The first side will maneuver, the second will offer defensive fire, then the first offensive fire, and finally the first side will initiate melee. The turn then switches to the second side where they will go about the same phases. At first this system felt a little clunky. I was coming from Panzer Campaigns and Panzer Battles and was more used to units moving without facing and finishing an entire turn (with opportunity fire), but after getting to grips with how units position themselves within hexes, how movement and morale worked, and how facing worked, I felt right at home.
The systems in Wellington’s Peninsular Campaigns try their best to make players use period tactics and formations. I appreciate that the game encourages skirmishers, protecting flanks, the appropriate use of each of the three arms, and the correct application of reserves and officers.
When forces are maneuvered and battle is joined, it becomes incredibly clear that the proper management of forces, not just the application of force, is the name of the game. Rotating out units is important, as a unit’s fatigue goes up steadily and barely comes back down. Morale, especially when dealing with average or poorer units is also critical to manage, and a folly move might endanger the line. This ties into the innovative threat score.
Similar to Zone of Control in other games, there is a rating on each hex, depending on proximity to enemies of different types, that units will test against when they attempt to perform maneuvers (or even just move with an optional rule in place) failing this morale test might disorder units or cause a route. So it becomes very important to keep units together and covering each other, and to be wary about how close enemy cavalry can get. It can be disastrous to fail to form a square because you waited too long and the threat value in a hex grew too large for the maneuver to go off without a hitch.
I’m really just scratching the surface, but suffice to say I was impressed with the way the game used base and optional rules to push a period feel and keep battles flowing ‘correctly’. I rarely felt like I was battling the system itself after my first couple of outings and, for a game of the scope, that is something I definitely look to when judging quality.
Not Always A Country of Wine and Songs
It’s pretty clear that I like Wellington’s Peninsular Campaigns. Perhaps not as much as the Panzer Campaigns and Panzer Battles that fired my interest in JTS’s systems so long ago, but I do like it quite a bit, and will continue to play it at least until I make it through every scenario at least once, but it’s not perfect.
The enemy AI is often fairly good, but occasionally makes baffling moves. More than once I’ve seen a decent enemy line collapse into a mob, or seen the enemy retreat in relative good order from a position only to start wandering the long way through heavy woods to the next objective. It doesn’t happen too often, and the enemy AI is good on the defensive especially, but occasional hiccups can only be attributed to poor generalship so many times. I personally didn’t find it too bad in most of the scenarios I played, but I understand that some are very sensitive to this sort of thing, so be warned that you will probably run into questionable AI moves here and there.
I am also not impressed with the 3D graphic view. I understand that this is something that Wargame Design Studio is working on for all JTS titles and so it may improve later on, but as it stands the game is best played with counters in the 2D view. Perhaps in future the 3D view will be worth using, but it is not that time now.
Is Wellington’s Campaign a Campaign for You?
Not a long list of complaints eh? Well bah humbug, I had a good time with Wellington’s Peninsular Campaigns. The minor AI hiccups and a 3D graphic view I’ll never use hardly detracted from the fun I had working through these scenarios.
The gameplay is tight, the UI, once accustomed to, is easy to navigate, the scenarios are detailed and entertaining, the AI is competent (mostly), there are dozens of multiplayer scenarios. The list of pros far outweigh the cons. If this is your first time looking at a JTS game, I’d perhaps recommend one set during the Second World War, but for those who are familiar or are only interested in the period of the Napoleonic Wars, this is a fine entry point. Try to wrangle some friends for multiplayer too. It will significantly extend the life of this already massive game.
Tight, fun, absolutely massive, and dripping with period charm. Wellington’s Peninsular Campaigns is a great addition to JTS’s venerable lineup.